What it's like to live at 78° North - Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Visiting Svalbard was intense. At one point I found myself staring at the towering mountains across the fjord and feeling incredibly small. I can't really put the feeling into words but one thing is for sure: Svalbard is enchanting! Once visited, this place never leaves you and in all earnesty, Svalbard managed to make me want to live there - if only for the summer - even though I had already prepared to say goodbye to life in the Arctic after 3 long and way too dark winters.

Needless to say that I picked up a thing or two about life in Svalbard on my trip and I'd love to tell you everything I know about the northernmost town you could ever live in: Longyearbyen!

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I can 100% understand the feeling of wanting to leave your old life behind to move to the Arctic - after all, that's exactly what I did 3 years ago. The Arctic - this place of wild and breath-taking nature that's different to everything else you've ever seen before.

Of course, Svalbard with its no visa needed policy seems like the perfect place to move to. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you'd really like to move to Svalbard:

 

Your neighbour might be big and hairy

You might have already heard of polar bears roaming the streets of Longyearbyen. While that is not exactly true as polar bear sightings in the town are actually pretty rare, you shouldn't dismiss the threat of running into this predator either. 

what's it like to live in longyearbyen svalbard

The truth is, Svalbard is a wild place and even though Longyearbyen is a town with all comforts you could possibly need in your life, it's still located in the wilderness. While polar bears usually live on the pack ice, thus north of Longyearbyen in the summer, they can occassionally visit the town in winter in search for food - or even more or less accidentally in a very cold summer if the pack ice drifts towards the town. 

These visits are less common than it is often perceived and very few of them actually happen within the town borders. In 2016, there were 2 polar bear sightings significantly close to Longyearbyen - in one of the two incidents, the bear had to be tranquilized and brought away by helicopter. 

The government of Svalbard tries its best to prevent polar bears from coming close to settlements, so Longyearbyen is by no means a polar bear adventure park. Nonetheless, it so happened in January this year that a female bear and her two cubs wandered around town in the middle of the night and even made their way onto the airport. They were chased away and no one was hurt but the incident shows that life in Longyearbyen means life in the wilderness. 

what's it like to live in longyearbyen svalbard

For this reason, the law of Svalbard instructs you to bring a rifle (and someone who knows how to use one) whenever you venture past the town borders. 

Apart from polar bears, wild reindeer are also inhabitants of Longyearbyen, though way less dangerous ones. In contrast to the bears, there are plenty of reindeer roaming the streets of Longyearbyen and if you move there, you'll possibly find them in your backyard as well.


 

Bad news for veggie-lovers

As you would expect for a town that's situated on an island in the Arctic Ocean, about 800 km from the Norwegian mainland, everything has to shipped there and it's not cheap. Need a new computer? Order it online but be prepared for the hefty postage fee that pops up at check-out. 

Similarly, groceries have to be imported from the mainland - resulting in quality loss and price increase of especially fresh produce like vegetables and fruits. Now the prices for vegetables on mainland Norway aren't exactly cheap already, so you can imagine what you'd have to pay for an apple in Longyearbyen. 

The good news though: alcohol is much cheaper than in mainland Norway as Svalbard is a tax-free zone. However, you might have to reconsider whether alcohol really makes up for vegetables...

 

An unforgiving environment

The climate in the High Arctic is harsh, with average winter daytime temperatures being as low as -20°C and the all-time record for cold being -46°C. Winters are long and snow storms even stronger than on the mainland. The town of Longyearbyen lies in a valley and due to permafrost, there is no tree growth whatsoever, so the wind here blows at an unforgiving rate.

what's it like to live in longyearbyen svalbard

So much so, that the snow on most cliffs rarely settles and can't form a thick layer. It is because of these steep cliffs that surround Longyearbyen and the harsh wind, that avalanches aren't a stranger to the town. In the winters of 2015 and 2016, avalanches destroyed several apartment buildings, killing a man and a toddler.

With the boom in tourism and more and more people wanting to move to Svalbard, available housing is starting to get scarce. It's not possible to just build houses wherever there is space, due to permafrost, and there even are talks of tearing down an entire apartment block in the north end of the town, as the danger of rockslides in the summer is becoming greater.


 

If you're broke or sick, it's time to go home

You're not allowed to die or get children in Svalbard, and if you run out of money, you have to leave the island.

There are no medical services in Longyearbyen, except for the hospital that's used for minor emergencies - so if you're getting seriously or chronically ill, you'd have to go to Tromsø where the nearest university hospital is situated, for treatment. Same goes for expecting mothers. A couple of weeks before the due date, you're flown to Tromsø where you'll have to stay until the little one is born. 

what's it like to live in longyearbyen svalbard

Longyearbyen simply doesn't have the resources that are necessary to care for people. Not even the elderly. If you reach the age where you can't take care of yourself anymore, you have to leave the island and live on the mainland. There are no retirement homes in Longyearbyen and the permafrost makes it difficult to bury people anyway. 

Thus, there are very few people who die on Svalbard and even fewer who can say that they are natives to the island. Of the a little over 2000 people who are living in Longyearbyen, most are Northern Norwegians, and the rest foreigners from all over the world. 

As you don't need a visa to live on Svalbard and have the same rights to open a business on the island as Norwegians do, it's relatively easy to move there. Typical work environments are the tourism sector and service industry in general (mostly seasonal work as tour guides, staff in hotels, bus drivers), and the research centre of Svalbard.

However, if you don't get a job and/or run out of money, you have to leave the island as there is no beneficiary system in place to support you. And if you ever become a criminal, your time in Svalbard will come to an end in no time.

whats it like to live in svalbard

Not too long ago, a German tourist and soccer hooligan thought it was funny to tag some of the old buildings in the Nybyen neighbourhood. What he didn't know was that all structures from before WWII are protected heritage. End of story: that guy is not coming back to the island.


 

Is it evening already or just lunch time?

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might have heard me go on and on about polar night and midnight sun already. As I think that polar night is rough enough in Tromsø though, I could never ever live in Longyearbyen - that's for sure!

The season of polar night where the sun doesn't rise at all, lasts in Longyearbyen from late November to early March. That's more than 3 months of not seeing the sun! Technically, the season only lasts until mid-February, but because the town is situated in a valley with up to 800 metre high mountains on three sides of it, it's not possible to see the sun until March 8. 

whats it like to live in svalbard

Likewise, the sun doesn't set in the town in summer for 4 months - possibly resulting in lack of sleep on your end as you can't distinguish between midnight and lunch time at all. 


 

Live hard, play hard

It might look like I'm trying to unsell the idea of moving to Longyearbyen but trust me, I just want to make sure you come prepared! Moving to the Arctic is no walk in the park and it will pay off to know as much as possible beforehand! 

Apart from all the challenges that life on Svalbard will throw at you though, there's lots of fun and adventures to be had too! As there's only a limited road network, you'll sooner or later learn how to drive a snowmobile (trust me, it's so easy!), become an avid mountain hiker, glacier climber or hunter - or you can just participate in one of the many festivals that are taking place in Longyearbyen each year!

what's it like to live in longyearbyen svalbard

To make the dark winter a little less dull, there's for example the Arctic Chamber Music Festival and a Jazz Festival. The return of the sun after polar night then again has its own festival week! And in spring it's all about skiing and dog-sledding at the Trapper's Trail or the Ski Marathon. Summertime is all about running with Spitsbergen Marathon and the Space Run, while autumn invites for an Oktoberfest, a literature festival and the Dark Season Blues - an aptly named music festival.

You might be living halfway between Europe and the North Pole if you decide to move to Longyearbyen, but that doesn't mean that life in the High Arctic is harsh all the time!


 

Practical Information 

If you're seriously looking into moving to Svalbard, the following information and resources can help you further. 

Read:

Find a job through:


Just visiting?

Book accommodation at:

What to pack:

A trip to Svalbard is an outdoor holiday - whether you're visiting in winter to see the Northern Lights, or in summer to go hiking or dog-sledding. A waterproof jacket and pants, as well as a durable backpack and solid hiking boots should therefore be in your suitcase no matter the season. You'd also need woolen underwear to stay warm.

Do you have more questions about life in the Arctic? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email and I'll do my best to help out! 

 

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